Derangement and collective action in Amitav Ghosh and Marilynne Robinson

How many books have I read, and then forgotten? Writing things down may help.

Amitav Ghosh, in his brilliant essay The Great Derangement, argues for a literature of collective action. That is not the central topic of his essay: the central topic is climate change, and our failure to face up to it. We can see that failure as individual, either moral or cognitive (hence, “derangement”), though it is also a staggering failure of collective action. Indeed, the futility of our efforts to address the problem collectively may be driving us mad.

Ghosh’s point about literature is that respectable fiction is meant to be driven by character, by individuals making choices in keeping with their characters, by processes of individual learning in which character may shift a bit; much of what is important in what we do (or fail to do) is collective, but literature neglects that. To see how he delivers on the form of fiction he advocates, I read his Ibis trilogy (Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke, and Flood of Fire).

It is a delightful story, full of terrific historical and anthropological detail, ranging over the Ganges and the Pearl River delta and the seas between, following opium from field to factory to market to shipment to addict to war in China. The writing is cinematic – scenes wrap up as they would in a mini-series, and it would make an excellent mini-series. Most of the characters are cardboard, two-dimensional; several of the central ones are people of unflinching virtue and strength, possessed of great pure reservoirs of wisdom and inner resource, such as seldom walk the Earth. There’s a terrific villain, the embodiment of a twisted imperial-racist-free trade ideology. One virtuous resourceful character goes over to the dark side, though in the end we are left with the hope that he will be saved by the love of a (strong virtuous resourceful clever) woman. I’m being slightly unfair here because the second of the three books, River of Smoke, takes more time with fewer characters and does treat them seriously as characters, but I think I’ve got the overall balance right.

So far, so much historical TV fodder if some TV network bring itself to be so anti-imperialist. But it is true – would I have noticed this had I not read The Great Derangement first? – that in place of character development, Ghosh foregrounds collective action. Whether it is foreign merchants on the Pearl River or sailors at sea or officers on the same ship or English army officers or their Indian subordinates or the ragtag troupe of indentured workers bound for Mauritius, we see the workings of common interest and the formation and testing of group identity; we see leaders emerge and sometimes fall, tests of loyalty, and in extremis the triage of those marginal to the group. Often in fiction, the unbending collective is just one more stubborn institution which the central individual characters must confront, to re-forge their character, and to prevail against or to fail. In the Ibis books, character (to the extent it figures) is both constituted and constrained by the action of the collective.

Ghosh’s use of the collective was made striking not only because Derangement had made me look for it but also because, just before the Ibis trilogy I had read The Brothers Karamozov. I loved it and, yet, I do not know a better validation of Ghosh’s indictment of character-driven literature, than Karamazov. It says it on the tin: brothers, who we soon learn are all of such very different characters, and whose differences in character drive the whole story. I’ve seen Dostoyevsky reckoned a social novelist, and surely in Karamozov we see great sympathy for the poor, for characters who by chance of birth have mean circumstances and foreshortened lives. Yet it is the differences in character of the three brothers who are from the same circumstances, their struggles with one another and even more their inner struggles with their own characters, which drive the story. And when they must face the collective – in crowds at the monastery, market, inn, courtroom or graveyard – Dostoyevsky’s characters must, as individuals, confront a collective which bays, in unison, mindless.

So then I began to scour my memory for the place of the individual and the collective in fiction. I found mostly that my memory had already been scoured, by time, but as it happens last year I’d read another trilogy, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Home, and Lila. You can read these books as flawless character driven literary fiction. Yet the absence of collective action is conspicuous, and it think its absence is the books’ great theme.

In the Iowa town of Gilead we find two old men, each the pastor of a different Calvinist congregation. There are a couple of scenes in the churches, but by and large we don’t see the congregations of the congregants: we know that both of these characters have spent their lives tending the same small flocks, but the sheep quietly – invisibly – deliver casseroles when they think the preacher needs feeding: we don’t see them. There must be in such a Midwestern town other denominations, whether Lutheran, Methodist, Catholic, or Pentecostal, but we don’t see them and have no sense of our ministers every seeing them. Outside of attending services and raising money for new church buildings and those casseroles, we never hear of our two ministers’ own congregations – these groups of neighbors who come together with a purpose every week – doing anything. The ministers both have passionate views about national politics, civil rights and foreign policy (Eisenhower vs. Stevenson, this is the mid 1950s), and about major league baseball, all of which comes to them via newspapers and television – collective action as spectator sport. Other characters who come into the town – Glory and Jack, returning children of one of the ministers, and Lila, young wife of the other one – have come to this place where nothing at all happens, as a refuge from a heartless outside world. Visions of better outcomes had been dangled, but for the characters in these books the choice in the end is between a heartless world, and a little town where nothing – really, nothing – happens.

One might think the uneventful town of Gilead is just a flat background against which Robinson can sketch characters, their loves and their frustrations. But the politics without action, the affectlessness of the congregations and the invisibility of the town overall – these are not a neutral background for Robinson. They are shown in strong contrast to Gilead’s past. Gilead is haunted by the ghosts of collective action. It was founded as an abolitionist outpost, a cross-border refuge for guerillas and escaped slaves from the pre-Civil War civil war in Kansas and Missouri. It had once had a black church, for some time welcome, then burned down – the arsonist unseen, but more likely the representative of a racist collective than a lone deranged individual – after which its congregants filtered away. John Ames, grandfather, namesake and founder of the congregation of the current Reverend Ames, was a fanatic, which is to say that he devoted his life entirely to justice. He was reckoned mad in his old age. He was deranged, it seems, by the retreat of both his revolutionary outpost and his progeny from the struggle for justice; by his community’s withdrawal into racial homogeneity and his descendents’ withdrawal into debating fine points of theology and of politics even more distant than a theological abstraction. The enervation of Gilead, its flatness as literary background and the lack of possibility it offers its people, are products of its retreat from the difficulties of collective action.

If we think of Robinson’s Gilead in light of Ghosh’s Great Derangement, the whole town is deranged; its people have found the peace of the three monkeys, seeing hearing speaking no evil, politics informing their characters but not their actions because action would be collective; in that peace their lives and their meanings slip away. In Ghosh’s sense they are all deranged, and if the grandfather Reverend Ames too had been mad it was from understanding this tragic turn by his fellows.

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